The Decisive Years

By Reiner Stach

Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch

Harcourt. 581 pp. $35Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, Franz Kafka (1883- 1924) is one of the great masters of spiritual desolation. We don't actually read his work, we are harrowed by it. In German of classical directness and purity, this desk functionary of the Prague Workers' Accident Insurance Institute presents tableau after tableau of what Pascal called "la misere de l'homme sans Dieu," the misery of man without God. All of Kafka's unfortunate protagonists -- Georg Bendemann in "The Judgment," Gregor Samsa in "The Metamorphosis," Josef K. in The Trial -- struggle against the one great, serious truth about life: Each of us is fundamentally and inescapably alone, especially in the face of death.

Oh, we may hope to lose ourselves in love, family or work, but these are just Potemkin villages, little more than flimsy movie sets. They can be knocked down with a single sharp blow. After all, a man could wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach or suddenly arrested without having done anything wrong. Far-fetched? By no means. Some sunny afternoon the X-ray will unexpectedly reveal a shadow no bigger than a baby's hand; one evening, after a pleasant dinner with wine, the phone will ring. And then we in our turn will twitch and twist and finally give in to the inevitable, like the tormented prisoner of "In the Penal Colony."

Kafka's stories are all parables of despair and helplessness, sorrowful emblems of the human condition. The all-important message from the emperor will never reach our ears, the hunger artist must die because he can't find anything he'd like to eat, the mole-like digger will always fail to construct a burrow impregnable to his enemies, the door into the castle isn't ever, ever going to open. Is no redemption possible in this world? Of course it is -- just not for us.

Kafka's work is famously susceptible to interpretations of all kinds. Nonetheless, most readers still tend to see the stories as fundamentally existential or theological, the modern equivalents to Plato's fables about caves and the origins of love or of Kierkegaard's many brief philosophical fictions. But since the death (in 1968) of Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod, who pushed a sacerdotal view of his friend's writing, modern scholarship has turned to examining the actual life of this enigmatic artist. Certainly nobody, with one celebrated exception, actually creates ex nihilo. And so we have now seen the careful publication of Kafka's holograph manuscripts, the scholarly editing of his every scrap, commentaries stressing his links to gesture-rich Yiddish theater and to cultural Zionism, speculation about his sexual life -- did he really have a son by Grete Bloch? -- and research into his actual daily work at the insurance office (he was a recognized authority on industrial accidents).

Reiner Stach's Kafka builds on much of this research. By focusing on 1910 through 1915 -- the time in his late twenties and early thirties when Kafka fell in love with Felice Bauer and began to produce his first great stories -- Stach aims to tell us all that can be known about the writer, avoiding the fancies and extrapolations of earlier biographers. The result is an enthralling synthesis, one that reads beautifully, in part thanks to the excellence of Shelley Frisch's English.

Though he avoids invention, Stach knows too much simply to present the facts and just the facts. With the kind of elan we associate with European intellectuals, he actively engages with his material, commenting or reflecting on its meaning. Take the correspondence with Felice Bauer. Stach admits that Kafka would have been appalled by the publication of these letters, but he then reflects on letter-writing as "one of the essential forms of modern individuality," goes on to note that mail posted on a Saturday night in Berlin (where Bauer lived) would be delivered on Sunday morning in Prague, and that Kafka so fetishized this young woman's letters that he carried them along on business trips. All this, and more, then serves to enhance a patient presentation of an agonized epistolary romance, the central thread of these crucial years.

The evening that Kafka met Bauer -- August 13, 1912 -- is, Stach asserts, one of those landmark days in intellectual and literary history, like the October afternoon in 1749 when Rousseau suddenly grasped the corrupting nature of civilization during a walk to Vincennes or the night of Oct. 4, 1892, when Paul Valery decided to renounce poetry. A few days after that casual meeting, Kafka composed -- in a single night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- his first masterpiece, "The Judgment," in which a father unexpectedly condemns his son to death. Stach aptly summarizes its importance:

"Suddenly -- without guide or precedent, it seemed -- the Kafka cosmos was at hand, fully equipped with the 'Kafkaesque' inventory that now gives his work its distinctive character: the father figure who is both overpowering and dirty, the hollow rationality of the narrator, the juridical structures imposed on life, the dream logic of the plot, and last but not least, the flow of the story perpetually at odds with the hopes and expectations of the hero."

Many months go by before Kafka again sees Bauer. During this time he confesses in his letters that he lives for literature alone, that he is unsociable, fearful, sickly, unhealthily thin, self-pitying, obsessive, neurotic, without interest in children and probably incapable of sexual intercourse. He has nothing to offer her, except his devotion -- and he's not even sure about that, since it might interfere with his writing.

Meanwhile, Bauer is dealing with problems of her own. Kafka doesn't know that her father once abandoned her mother to live with another woman, that her sister is about to give birth to an illegitimate daughter and that her brother is a swindler (who eventually flees to America to avoid his creditors). Bauer has compensated by becoming a serious career woman, the sales representative for a dictation system called Parlographs. Her family counts on her, expects her to make a good match. So, naturally she falls more and more in love with this loser from Prague.

Whenever the two meet, they are tongue-tied, and yet before long there is uncertain talk of marriage, eventually followed by a painful engagement ceremony. Not surprisingly, Kafka finally realizes that he simply can't face the prospect of a wedding and suddenly calls the whole thing off, at almost the last moment. Though Stach ends his book shortly after this, in 1915, Kafka fans know that Felice and Franz eventually started seeing each other again, and that in 1917 they announced a second engagement. Kafka cancelled a second time, this time for good: By then he was spitting up blood and diagnosed with tuberculosis. Nonetheless, he still had eight years to live and, surprisingly, there would be other women, as well as work on stories like "The Hunter Gracchus" and "A Hunger Artist" and the never-completed masterpiece The Castle.

I can't say enough about the liveliness and richness of Stach's book. Even his chapter epigraphs, while apposite, are delightfully original. When he discusses Kafka's official duties, he heads the chapter with a quotation from the Portuguese writer (and sometime office worker) Fernando Pessoa: "What are desires compared to a promotion?" When he discusses "The Metamorphosis," he opens with a line from the pulp detective Charlie Chan: "Strange events permit themselves the luxury of occurring." In short, every page of this book feels excited, dynamic, utterly alive. My copy is now covered with pencilings and marginalia.

Above all, though, Stach repeatedly underscores that Kafka never valued incompleteness or endorsed a romantic cult of the fragment. "The opposite is true. He greatly admired perfect formal unity and was determined to achieve it, a resolution evident in every one of his endeavors. His pursuit of formal perfection meant that his literary texts had to develop organically from their fictional and visual seed. There could be no arbitrary plot twists." After reminding us of Kafka's need to work in sustained bursts, he zeroes in on the author's creative problem: "Kafka suffered not from a lack of ideas but from a lack of continuations . . . . He demanded much more from his texts than formal unity; he sought a seamless linking of all motifs, images, and concepts. . . . Not one detail of Kafka's descriptions, whether the color of a piece of clothing, a gesture, or simply the time of day, is merely illustrative. Everything carries meaning, refers to something, and recurs." Little wonder that almost everything fell short in this quest for perfection.

Near the end of these "decisive years" Kafka was working on The Trial. By now he had written a handful of masterpieces -- and important professional reports for his insurance company; he had fallen in and out of love with Bauer while also flirting with (or even succumbing to) her close friend Grete Bloch; he had talked with Martin Buber about Zionism, dealt with the novelist Robert Musil as his editor, and attended a ballet in which Nijinksy danced. Though we must imagine Kafka in his noisy family apartment, living on vegetables and hidden in his room, we shouldn't forget that he also traveled to Venice and once stopped in Trieste, where he could have glimpsed Italo Svevo and James Joyce. (As he had learned Italian for his insurance work, he might have spoken to them.) And even this introspective and solipsistic genius eventually noticed when Europe went to war in 1914, though not for a while. His diary entry for August 2, 1914, reads: "Germany has declared war on Russia. -- Swimming in the afternoon."

Could this last, I have long wondered, be an example of Kafka's wit? (He could supposedly set his friends roaring with laughter when he read some of his stories aloud.) Certainly, one suspects a smile behind this passage in a letter to Bauer from 1913: "Are you finding any meaning in 'The Judgment,' I mean some straightforward, coherent meaning that can be followed? I am not finding any and I am also unable to explain anything in it." Many people feel just as puzzled even now when they first finish reading the story.

Such a strange man. But this fine book helps us better understand that apparently inexhaustible strangeness. Right now Kafka even seems a useful counter-example to the ongoing cult of celebrity authors and bright, edgy writing. He destroys more than he publishes, he takes art as serious and life-changing; he views writing as a vocation of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and sacrifice. As he writes to Bauer: "I have no literary interests; I am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else." This certainly sounds grandiose and exaggerated, but in Kafka's case it's also true. *

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

Drawing by Franz Kafka and a portrait taken in 1910